FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER (“GOOD SHEPHERD SUNDAY)
Acts 13:14, 43-52 Rev 7:9, 14-17 Jn 10:27-30
Sheep of Christ’s Flock. Our Communion with the Lord; Sheep and Shepherd; Adapting to Change; Universal Appeal of the Good News.
Jesus’ discourse today, from the last of his lengthy talks to the people of Jerusalem in St John’s Gospel, took place on Solomon’s Porch of the Temple. This was a roofed-over walkway through columns of magnificent pillars forty feet high – something like the portico of a high court today or a university entrance. Solomon’s Porch was a play where people were accustomed to go to meditate and pray and where rabbis strolled while instructing their students. The Pharisees were again asking, some in good faith, their usual questions about Jesus being the Messiah. His answers centered around himself as the Good Shepherd, an image the First Testament used for good kings.
The image of shepherd and sheep, a joy to both the Old and the New Testaments but in our day seemingly meaningful only to a few rustics, isn’t an antiquated image that demands change, even in our time of zooming airplanes, buzzing industry, efficient computers, and beckoning television screens. In the early Church, no symbol, including the cross, was more prominent than the Good Shepherd and his sheep. There is no better image to illustrate the intimate nature of the relationship between Jesus and us.
Whereas the image of sheep as applied to Jesus, especially as a lamb, signifies gentleness, young innocence, meekness, and purity, applied to us it signifies dependence – that we are weak and in need of help. It may not occur to some of our contemporaries who have no more contact with sheep than to eat a roast of lamb that sheep are among the dumbest of animals. A sheepherder once said, “Sheep are born looking for a way to die.” They go into gullies, become entangled in brambles, fall into ditches, and wander into predator’s territory.
No domesticated animal is as defenceless. Your pet dog likely has enough intelligence to find his way home, has some acute sense like smell and hearing to find food, and can defend himself against other animals or make a judgement to run away from one bigger than himself. Your domesticated cat retains many of the qualities of the wild, often owns you instead of vice versa, and is a loner with enough cunning to take care of most situations. It has been said that with a dog, you feed him, you give him plenty of affection, you take him for walks, and he thinks, “Wow, this fellow must be a god.” With a cat, however, you feed him, you love him, you care for him, and he thinks, “Wow, I must be a god!”
It is neither of those ways with sheep! For us to admit that we’re sheep is to put trust completely in the Good Shepherd. The relationship between this kind of shepherd and his sheep is a power of connectedness, of empathy. We need connectedness with Jesus the Good Shepherd more than we know. If a baby is fed and warmed and cleaned but never held, smiled at, and talked to – all of which call the baby into life – it won’t develop normally.
The relationship between the Good Shepherd and his sheep is so intimate that it is an extension of the relationship between the heavenly Father and the Son. Whereas Jesus speaks of his sheep, forming his flock, being in his hand, he is also quick to put forth his heavenly Father’s auspices (v. 29). The Father’s omnipotence is the guarantee of Jesus’ promises. In fact, Jesus makes one of his “hard sayings” – that the Father and he are one (v. 30). Not “at one”, but “one”. He and the Father are one in mind, will, action, and heart. That relationship between the Father and the Son is so close that the Good Shepherd can make promises to his flock that can be fulfilled only by the Father (v. 28). He promises eternal life, a foretaste of God’s own life instead of the pettiness that many people know in this present life. He promises that his sheep shall never perish – physical death won’t be the end but the beginning. And he promises that no one can take us out of his hand – our life, despite the same sorrows and sufferings that others have, will be secure under his protection.
Today’s portion of the Book of Revelation amplifies the picture. Its author sees God’s huge flock as being from every nation, race, people, and tongue – from the press of people in the market places, in the narrow city streets, and on the quays of the seaport towns then and now. Revolutionary! For the Jews, to think of this crowd being saved needed a change of mental gears.
Christ’s Good News must never be identified with any one culture, and no element of culture, and no element of culture which isn’t opposed to the Good News need be jettisoned for its sake. In some places, the image must change. In the South Pacific, for example; where the people wouldn’t understand sheep or lamb, a similar message can best be conveyed (mutatis mutandis) only by the image of the piglet. Although Jesus was a particular human being, living at a particular time, in a particular place, and with a particular culture, the Good News about which he spoke isn’t tied to any of those things.
The author of the Book of Revelation saw the Christian flock, though perhaps a bit battered and worn, victorious over the great distress (v. 14) of the fierce Roman persecutions of the early Church. In the early Church, the many who were slaves, and other workers as well, knew what it meant to be hungry all the time, thirsty a good part of the time, and have the sun mercilessly beat down on them as they worked without end in the open fields. They could easily imagine heaven as a place where they simply had enough to eat and drink and where the heat of the sun no longer tortured them.
Also in all, the Shepherd promises his flock all that a person could yearn for – comfort and relief for the aches of the heart and of the soul as well as of the body. He will wipe every tear from the eyes (v. 17) of all the faithful of the flock. Whatever one most needs at any given moment, God can give.
But, as today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles shows, it is sometimes difficult for the flock to be mindful. To get to Antioch in Pisidia, which is slightly south of centre in modern Turkey and almost 4,000 feet above sea-level, Sts Paul and Barnabas had to go by one of the roughest by brigands. The town was very mixed in population and therefore highly flammable. One thing that would easily inflame the considerable number of Jews who lived there was the expression of any idea that anybody but they were eligible for God’s promises.
Despite that narrowness, Paul’s sermon – his first sermon, an inaugural address, a turning point in the Church’s work of evangelization – stressed important doctrines about the Good Shepherd – that Jesus’ coming was the culmination of history; people didn’t recognize that fact; although Jesus was crucified, he rose from the dead; his resurrection was the fulfillment of prophecy; for people who were trying to change, Jesus’ message was good news; for those who wouldn’t change, Jesus’ message was bad news.
The reaction of the people at large to Paul’s synagogue discourse was enthusiastic. The following Sabbath, a good portion of the city gathered to hear the word of the Lord from him (v. 44). But the common people’s widespread enthusiasm contrasted with the jealousy of the leaders (v. 50). Nevertheless, Paul and Barnabas spoke fearlessly. Paul said that though priority of salvation was a privilege of the Jews, this didn’t mean it was exclusively theirs (v. 46).
So Paul and Barnabas now went to the Gentiles – luckily for us today! In retaliation, some of the Jews stirred up a persecution against them (v. 50). The way they did it was to approach faithful woman, for whom at that time the Jewish religion had a special attraction, because outside Judaism sexual morality was lax and family life breaking down. The Jewish religion preached a high level of morality. The Jewish leaders persecuted these women to have their husbands, some of whom were in influential positions, take steps against the Christian preachers. The leaders thus succeeded in having Paul and Barnabas expelled from their territory. But even as the two Apostles defiantly shook the dust of the town from their feet as they departed (v. 51), they left disciples who were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit (v. 52). With a zeal for spreading the name of Jesus that should be a model for all of us, they travelled southeast to Iconium.
Whether or not we phrase it in terms of Jesus being our shepherd and we the sheep of his flock, we’re God’s people and Jesus is our Lord. That’s part of the essence of the ever-old and ever-new Easter message: that God offers us eternal life, the life of the risen Jesus, the life of God Himself. That’s Good News – News because it’s something which never happened before, and Good because it concerns what all human beings hold most dear: eternal life.
The eternal life he offers isn’t simply ordinary human life without end, but the fullness of human existence. To find that fullness, we ought every day to adapt the Good Shepherd’s message to the ever-changing circumstances of our lives. Today’s liturgy calls us, for one thing, to renew our spirit of unity as a parish community and to revitalize our outreach to others so that we can all be one flock under the one Good Shepherd. We don’t, after all, want to become spiritually as foolish or extinct as the dodo bird.